Copper is Cyprus’s only major natural resource – but it was once so plentiful that it secured the island’s fame and wealth for millennia. Copper was the first metal that humans used to make weapons, tools and jewellery – a development which marked the end of the Stone Aage. And even then, Cyprus supplied such large quantities to Europe’s advanced cultures that the material was named after the island: the Latin “aes cyprium” (“metal from Cyprus”) was gradually shortened to “cuprum”, the root for “copper”. When humans learned to alloy copper with a small amount of tin around 3300 BCE – creating bronze – this greatly enhanced the properties of the material.

Copper mining on Cyprus reached a large, quasi-industrial scale around 2300 BCE: the Cypriots exploited the seemingly inexhaustible deposits in the Troodos mountains in underground and open-cast mines and shipped the ore to all the important peoples of the Mediterranean. This trade was so profitable that the great powers of antiquity continually strove for domination of rich Cyprus.

The boom continued even when a much more practical material became common starting around 1200 BCE, when the Iron Age commenced. Copper was still needed to make bronze, because bronze, which shines like gold, was used to make ceremonial armour, sculptures and even roofs. As a consequence, the forests of Cyprus were chopped down to smelt copper, and mounds of slag piled up around the mines at Tamassos, Soli and Skouriotissa that can still be seen today in the Troodos Geological Park. Demand did not collapse until around 400 AD, when the decline of the Roman Empire was well under way.

Although the island served as a naval base for a series of maritime powers, it fell into poverty in the Middle Ages. Shipbuilding remained insignificant, likely due to the lack of wood. For a time, Cyprus profited from the trade in salt, produced at the lakes around Larnaka. The export of sugar, made from sugarcane and referred to as “sweet salt”, gained momentum in the 14th century. But by the end of the 16th century, the production centres of Kouklia, Kolossi and Episkopi were no longer able to withstand the competition from the New World.

The occupation of this strategically important island by Britain in 1878 finally delivered substantial economic momentum. In the harbours, the government built the first solid quays and opened a narrow-gauge railway between Famagusta and Evrychou in the north-western mining region in 1905. Steamship companies and factories for agricultural products such as olive oil, wine and tobacco were founded. Mining was revived, initially mining of pyrite, in demand on account of its sulphur content, and shortly before World War I the American Cyprus Mining Company reopened the ancient copper mine at Skouriotissa. The Hellenic Mining Company mined gold and silver ore for ten years near Mitseros in the Troodos Mountains starting in the 1920s.

Copper mining was suspended during World War II and again during the Greek-Turkish conflict in 1974. In the aftermath, the island, which attained independence in 1960, was partitioned into two states, and mining recommenced. Today, however, only the mines in the ethnic Greek town of Skouriotissa are still worked, as the deposits are virtually played out. Industrial activity now mainly concerns the production of construction materials such as bentonite and cement; a refinery for imported crude oil was built in the Greek port of Larnaka; and textile and food manufacturing flourish in both Cypriot states. In spite of the setbacks due to partition, industrial production in both the Greek and Turkish parts both exceeded agricultural production in 1989. In the Greek republic, however, it falls far short of the tourism-driven services sector.